Top 10 Airshow Moments of 2015
Thursday 31st December 2015
No matter that 2015 was a year blessed with unusually good weather at many events, with a variety of well-observed anniversaries and strong international participation, the fatal accidents at both Shoreham and Oulton Park meant that it will forever be remembered as the blackest British airshow season in many years, if not of all-time.
At time of writing the final ramifications of the August tragedy at the Shoreham display are unclear, but it would be foolhardy to presume that the events we know, love, support and cherish won't be won't be affected by some form of change in the future.
What follows in our annual review, a firm favourite since UKAR's first in 2009, is a list celebrating what we feel is the best of the glorious diversity that is the UK air display scene. From small farm strip fly-ins watched by a couple of hundred to the huge seaside events attracting crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands, watching aeroplanes, helicopters, autogyros, home-builds, warbirds, fast jets and classics flown by the some of the world's most professional display pilots.
The 2015 season saw the final flights of Avro Vulcan XH558, her passing touching the hearts of even the project's fiercest sceptics. There were debuts of exciting new military machines, and the return of old favourites at venues such as Cosford, Fairford, Yeovilton and Culdrose, as well as the skies being filled with historic, iconic fighters of the Second World War as huge balbos formed up to pay jaw-dropping tribute honouring the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The response to these formations, both from the general public and the media was the perfect antidote to the wicked hysteria that swept the nation post-Shoreham.
Our Top Ten really only scratches the surface of what we were lucky enough to witness across our nation's skies in 2015. Inevitably there are some stellar performers and wonderful sights and sounds that had to miss the final cut. Let's not forget the debut of the Bristol Scout reproduction at Old Warden in October, or the appearance of the Albatros and Snipe pair at the same venue in July and August. Cosford's organisers pulled out the stops to wheel the glorious TSR2 outside, blinking into the daylight, and who can forget the brilliance of the French Ramex Delta pair of Mirage 2000s at the Royal International Air Tattoo?
But our end-of-year list must only include ten, so pour yourself a New Year's drink, relax and relive the happier moments of an undeniably troubled display season as we present the UK Airshow Review staff team's rundown of the Top Ten Airshow Moments, 2015!
Agree or disagree with our selection? Have your say on our forums or via UKAR's social media channels.
10) Muscling In
Gasps and expressions of wonder are sounds not uncommonly heard at airshows throughout the UK, especially during aerobatic display routines such as those put on by Rich Goodwin. Far less commonly heard is the sound of an airshow crowd roaring with laughter; this, however, was certainly the result of the unusual - and unexpected - commentary during Goodwin's display at the RAF Cosford Air Show this year.
Introduced as Rich Goodwin's next-door neighbour, the commentator started off describing various parts of the Pitts Special having been fashioned from old junk bought at the local market. It all seemed plausible enough - if rather surprising - but as the claims became more and more ludicrous (he has a coffee maker in the cockpit with an "anti-gravity" cup holder, for example, and often takes his Jack Russell Bader with him on long journeys!), the crowd began to cotton on and raucous laughter could be heard down the length of the display line. Some very imaginatively named manoeuvres (the FIFA-Zurich Split!) tied the commentary in with the usual breathtaking display from Rich.
It transpired later that the commentator was none other than Peter Dickson, one of the most recognisable voices on British television. If the television business starts to grow old, Peter can certainly find a career in airshow commentary - having provided what will be one of the most fondly remembered and funniest - if not 100% factually correct - voice-overs at an airshow for many years to come.
"Being an ex-RAF pilot, its always a great honour to be invited to display at RAF Cosford. It has been a great challenge to push the development of the Muscle Biplane here in the UK and bring something new to the airshow circuit. I will always be very grateful to Bill Hartree who gave me the first opportunity to display at Cosford. We make enhancements to the aircraft every season, and this year it was a new rudder design and Union Jack paint scheme. It was a real bonus when I was offered the opportunity to work with Peter Dickson as commentator and add another dimension to the display. He quickly embraced the right words to introduce my Pitts Special, pets and the other unusual quirks behind my aircraft."
"Delivering a spoof commentary at an air show the size of the RAF Cosford Air Show was a huge gamble. But if any display was crying out for it, it was Rich's Pitts Special. So, posing as his next door neighbour who helped him build it, I came up with a load of nonsensical facts and figures; including the ridiculous notion that he flew the display with his Jack Russell "Bader" alongside him in the cockpit!"
9) Family Resemblance
2015 was the year that the RAF got special paint schemes right after many years of, at times, rather lacklustre efforts. This change was perhaps best exemplified by the Royal Air Force's 'Synchro 75' Typhoon FGR4 painted in the colours of Wg Cdr Eric James Brindley Nicolson DFC's mount. For a long while it had been understood that the RAF was very restricted as to where special markings could be positioned on the Typhoon airframe; however this year that very much changed.
As well as flying stunning commemorative routines in conjunction with the BBMF fighters across the display season (in the hands of Flt Lt Ben Westoby-Brooks); ZK349 was also utilised on occasion for the solo display, with Flt Lt Jonny Dowen's performances allowing us yet more breathtaking captures of this unique scheme. 'GiNA' (as the aircraft has become affectionately known) has set a new benchmark for other display scheme designers to live up to, with a highly accurate depiction of Nicolson's Hurricane. In formation with the Flight's Spitfire IIa P7350 in particular, the pairing of old and new was especially appropriate.
It is likely that the aircraft will be returning to its standard grey scheme in short order, however the effort of the RAF (both to provide the extra airframe for shows and the provision of a full respray) should not be overlooked. It would be fantastic to see other modern-day RAF units remembering their past with 'retro' colours - the mind boggles - and what better time to do so than in the lead-up to the RAF's centenary in 2018?
8) Victory Salute
There's an element of theatre at airshows. We arrive and mull around the foyer, before taking our seats prior to the show proper beginning. Set-pieces are no strangers to airshows - and indeed, just to stay afloat, organisers face the monumental task each year of setting both the aerial and static stage for the theatre that is the show. It's clear, therefore, that it takes something quite remarkable for a set-piece to be remembered above most others. The late, great Paul Bowen was renowned for it, and the set-pieces of RIATs (and IATs) of yesteryear are fondly remembered by those of us lucky enough to have been present.
It's been a year of commemoration and set-pieces at shows up and down the country, but as far as the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe - or VE Day - few theatrics are remembered as fondly as the finale of the RAF Cosford Air Show. Pulling together a wide variety of aircraft such as ARCo's HA-1112-M1L Buchon, the much-loved "Sharkmouth" P-51D Mustang of the Norwegian Spitfire Trust, Hurricane I R4118, and the Classic Air Force's Anson resulted in a well-paced, educational aerial tribute to VE70. Each machine, whilst forming part of the wider scenario, was also given time to display in its own right, including the sought-after P-51 - sadly lacking at Duxford's show three weeks before. This is to say nothing of the ground display and the "Victory Village"; with some rather more unique, and no less significant aircraft, vehicles and period actors. The overall feeling was of a well-planned and considered theme. The event could have rested on its laurels, by - for example - merely labelling some of the warbirds in attendance as being part of the commemoration, instead of the truly excellent and thoughtfully-executed tribute seen this year.
It was a bold step for the RAF's only airshow to move away from paying tribute to the Battle of Britain 75th, and pay tribute to the wider sacrifice in Europe - a step that was a resounding success. It's the theatre of airshows that draws the masses, and with their celebration of the VE70, the RAF Cosford Air Show exited stage left for the 2015 season with many-a-head held high. It's great to see that Cosford has been punching above it's weight in the past few years, and continues to do so.
"All of us here at RAF Cosford are over the moon that our VE70 Finale has been recognised as part of UKAR's Top 10 List. With 'VE70' being a main theme for our event, both in the flying display and in the 'Victory Village' ground displays, we wanted to make sure our commemorations were something memorable for all our visitors. We were lucky enough to be working with four of the UK's top warbird display pilots to create the set piece accompanied by some awesome pyrotechnics which rounded off another brilliant edition of the RAF Cosford Air Show - see you in 2016!"
Air Show Director
7) Mercuries Rising
Following the Blenheim's unfortunate landing accident at Duxford in the summer of 2003, few expected it would be a further twelve years before the Aircraft Restoration Company's pride and joy would return to the airshow scene. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that decade-plus restoration certainly meant its 2015 return was eagerly anticipated.
During that time, the aircraft has undergone a transformation from the Mk.IV bomber that was so heavily damaged to an extremely rare Battle of Britain-era Mk.I night fighter, but what really made the Blenheim a star turn at every airshow it attended last summer was the sheer quality of display ARCo had put together. From a performance to outshine the Vulcan at Old Warden, the combined perfection of weather and venue at Cosby to the unexpected formation with Spitfire SL633 and landing at Headcorn, John Romain's elegant, flowing and supremely photogenic routine has drawn praise everywhere it has been and is the real reason this aircraft enjoyed such a stellar season.
With the Vulcan now out of the picture, there are few items in 2016 that will be more "must-see" than John Romain's masterclass in what must surely be one of the finest warbirds in Europe.
6) Style with Grace
Spitfires have always been a common sight at airshows up and down the country, more than ever this year with events marking the Battle of Britain's 75th anniversary. However, aside from the traditional Royal Air Force variants, it was the newly restored Supermarine Seafire III PP972 that was at the top of many enthusiast's wishlists this year. For many, the Cosby Victory Show provided the first chance to see the aircraft perform properly - and she performed in the company of the Grace Spitfire ML407.
Everyone witnessing the display at Cosby knew they were watching something special. The masterful decision to use the Spitfire/Seafire synchro display as the show finale meant that warm evening sunshine illuminated the aircraft as they performed in blue skies over the farm. Piloted by Richard Grace & Dave Puleston, the two machines performed in elegant harmony before breaking apart; giving time for each airframe to be admired individually. The Seafire III in particular was showcased with a number of topside passes much to the delight of the assembled photographers. In an environment when airshows can sometimes feel increasingly 'commercial' and 'sterile', the sight of two beautiful warbirds performing a fast paced, low-level routine over the beautiful English countryside showed true divergence from the norm, and for that reason it claims a slot in our Top 10.
5) Better Call Gaul
After their stunning display back in 2011, the return of the French Navy's role demonstration to the RNAS Yeovilton Air Day was highly anticipated, and this level of excitement was raised once it was confirmed there two of each type (Dassault-Breguet Super Étendard Modernisé & Dassault Rafale M) participating. With the Super Étendard Modernisé due for retirement in the coming years, many enthusiasts realised that this display may be the last chance to see the iconic naval fighter on UK shores.
The display itself didn't disappoint - after a formation take-off from the SEMs and individual performance departures from the Rafales, the fourship completed a formation flypast showcasing their arrestor hooks. The majority of the display was then performed with the Rafale pair & Étendard pair taking turns to impress the crowds with a mix of high/slow speed passes in differing configurations. The contrast between the graceful lines of the SEMs and brute power of the Rafales ticked all the boxes for a memorable flying display. Battling against some of the worst weather of the day, the role demonstration was one of the highlights of an impressive flying programme and provided an opportunity to see one of Dassault's finest fighters for possibly the final time; a true highlight of this year's airshow season.
"The French Navy's contribution to Air Day was nothing short of outstanding. When we received notification from the aircrew that they intended to take part with a four-ship fast jet role demo, including what would be the Super Étendard's UK swansong, we just couldn't believe it.
To be honest, we were waiting for their chain of command to spoil the party at any moment! We then heard the nominated display aircrew were on deployment in the Gulf; however it wouldn't jeopardise their appearance as they were going to work up their display off the carrier on its return journey! Their commitment to make it happen and the final end result, one that is very rarely seen outside of France, was spectacular and demonstrates the special relationship between both Navies.
In a year which has seen so many unique spectacles, we are delighted to see the Rafales and Super Étendards make UKAR's Top Ten."
Director, AHA Events Ltd (Organisers of RNAS Yeovilton Air Day)
4) Spitfire Symphony
Culminating the year's Battle of Britain tributes was the IWM Duxford's 'Battle of Britain Anniversary Air Show', the focal point of the commemorations being a segment titled 'Target London' comprising of fifteen Spitfires and two Seafires. Aided by the experience gained from other large formations flown throughout the season, the aircraft flew united in close formation over the Spitfire's 'home' airfield; breaking into smaller segments of looser formations enabling faster and lower passes over the airfield; before the pilots split onto two display axes, one close to the crowd, one further away offering great depth to the tail chase sequence. The conclusion of the tribute was a superbly flown solo routine by the leader of the balbo, with Brian Smith putting his steed, MH434, through a pleasing aerobatic sequence while his fellow performers landed underneath.
Duxford's salute to 'The Few' was unique in encompassing and surpassing the components that we have seen over the summer in other tributes within one display. With the mighty roar of Merlins and Griffons on a mass take off, rolling in unison; a close formation of all the participating aircraft of the tribute; with a dynamic display rather than only flypasts. No other venue could boast such a well-executed repertoire. The sequence offered a great piece of well-choreographed aviation theatre, telling the story of the Battle of Britain with the sacrifice made by the pilots at the forefront. The aerial treat was mirrored in the access to the aircraft on the ground. With the aircraft parked in front of the crowd available at close inspection on the Flightline Walk, before taxiing along the crowd line to/from their parking spots before and after their display. With the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight aircraft taxiing in preparation for their display simultaneously with the Spitfire salute, further enhancing the experience.
No words could convey the affect of the display as well as the feeling being immersed within an audience that, unprompted, applauded every aircraft as it landed and taxied past after the routine. Nowhere does large formations of warbirds quite like Duxford.
3) Orient Impress
2012's Air Tattoo (and UK) debut of the Japanese Air Self Defence Force KC-767, and its return in 2014, was rightly hailed as a landmark event in British aviation history. This year's RIAT was able to continue, and indeed surpass, this honour with the appearance of not one, but two, Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force Kawasaki P-1 MPA aircraft - with one performing the first ever European flying display by a Japanese aircraft. This feat was all the more remarkable as it was, in fact, the international debut of the P-1 to boot!
For their part, the crews were visibly enthusiastic to be attending the show - handing out infographic sheets to the public and fielding questions about their aircraft; it is understood that senior air force personnel were taken for a flight on the Friday morning as well. While the flying display was not the lengthiest on the programme, it was a well-flown routine that demonstrated many aspects of the aircraft and its systems and was far from sedate; however, the mere fact that we saw it in the air was enough to make the jaw drop.
To secure two examples of a type many would have reasonably assumed would never be seen in our skies shows the global strength that the Air Tattoo still retains - as well as its ability to consistently surprise us with appearances that few other shows could hope to secure.
"Over the years, the Air Tattoo has earned a reputation for staging unique aerial set pieces as well as attracting some of the most exciting and rarely-seen aircraft from around the globe. I am delighted that UKAR has acknowledged that tradition is alive and well by including the Japanese P-1 in their Top 10 list.
It was a great team effort to get it here and it will always be special for me as the 'first aircraft arrival at my first show in charge'. We are very grateful to the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force for honouring us with their visit. Roll on 2016!"
RAFCTE Chief Executive
2) Power and the Glory
2015 has been a landmark year for the commemorations of the Battle of Britain, with various venues providing fitting tributes that paid homage to the men and women that served on both sides. It was incredibly challenging not to attend an airshow that did not feature at least one variant of Spitfire, Hurricane or even the magnificent Blenheim. But one particular event provided an incredible line-up in memory of "The Few". The Boultbee Flight Academy envisaged the largest gathering of Spitfires, Hurricanes and Blenheim to occur at Goodwood Airfield on 15th September; Battle of Britain Day.
Despite the inclement weather in the morning attempting to dampen proceedings, a huge crowd of over 30,000 descended on the former RAF Westhampnett to the sight of numerous warbirds, culminating in an impressive total of 35 airframes. With the aircraft departing in nine separate formation flights, the stunning sight and sound of numerous warbirds thundering into the clearing skies en masse gave men and women of all ages the shivers.
It was certainly no easy feat to collate so many classic aircraft, and its likely that no event of its kind will ever happen again. Therefore, the Boultbee Flight Academy must be commended for their valiant efforts in bringing together so many aircraft and willing pilots - including the likes of HRH Prince Harry - to provide what is arguably the most memorable Battle of Britain commemoration of 2015.
1) Avro & Out - The Greatest Goodbye
Ever since returning to flight in 2008, many fans of Vulcan XH558 have been wishing that it would be displayed at an airshow in a style much akin to the displays witnessed during her days in RAF service. Whilst glad to see such an iconic aircraft back in the air - pleasing (dare we say) millions of people - a significant number repeatedly commented that the display was sedate and didn't show off the legendary prowess of this Cold War warrior. Many dreamed of a more aggressive, but safe, display.
It soon became apparent that 2015 was XH558's final flying year and time was running out; then came the penultimate display at the Royal International Air Tattoo. With Kev Rumens at the controls, '558 performed a very low and aggressive - almost knife-edge - turn immediately after take-off; leaving the assembled Friends of RIAT and the general public open-mouthed with amazement, a few cheers could even be heard. What followed was an energetic and aggressive display from XH558 ending in a fighter-style zoom climb we cannot remember seeing anywhere else. Judging by the social media eruption that followed, no-one else had either!
This one display will stay with those that witnessed it for a long time, and has very quickly entered airshow folklore as the best display XH558 performed during its return to our skies. We couldn't let the Vulcan pass into history without recognising the final display season; that's why we were so pleased that they gave us a reason to honour them with our number one spot, the best airshow moment of 2015.
"I am very proud to be part of the Vulcan team and consider the "As the Crow Flies" trophy awarded at RIAT 2015 to be very much a team effort. Although I happened to be flying the aircraft on Saturday at RIAT, I am pretty sure that if any pilot on the team had flown that day the results would have been the same. When we display the Vulcan, all of the pilots fly the same routine. The 2015 routine was essentially the same as the 2014 routine with the exception of the "zoom climb" at the end of the display. Most air shows that the Vulcan attends are "fly in - fly out" shows so RIAT is slightly different in that we take off straight into the display. This allows us to begin the show with a display take-off. Other than that, the display that was flown at RIAT is the same show that many thousands of people witnessed throughout the country in 2015."
"On the day in question I was blessed with the perfect weather conditions to display in. I had clear skies and an on-crowd wind. It is a little known fact that the wind significantly changes a display, especially the Vulcan display where we fly quite slow throughout. An on-crowd wind makes the display a lot tighter when viewed from the spectator's perspective, and all of the noise that we make gets blown towards the crowd making the display sound very loud. I could have flown exactly the same display the next day with an off-crowd wind and it would have looked very slack and sounded very quiet. So while I am very appreciative of the award presented to the Vulcan at RIAT, I am acutely aware that I was lucky with the weather on the day. As an aside, it was my joy and pleasure to join up with the Red Arrows for a flypast post the display, prior to landing. Hopefully the formation proved to be as well received by the public as the individual display was.
"It is sad that I am writing this after the final flight of the Vulcan. I hope you will all agree with me that returning the Vulcan to flight and displaying the aircraft was a massive achievement. I know that it is impossible to please everyone but please know that as a team we did our best. For all of the support that we received over the years I would just like to say a big thank you.
Pilot, Vulcan to the Sky Trust
Do you agree with our choices? What do you consider to be the most memorable moments of last season?